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UK riots: rebels without a cause?

By Nayha Kalia
August 11th 2011

On Monday night my family gathered in our front room and watched our city burn. Masked youths charging through streets I had walked down just hours before smashing shop windows and setting fire to buildings and cars – London became unrecognisable.

The historical backdrops to the riots that have swept parts of urban London and other British cities this past week is crucially telling, while at the same time shines a light on the foolishness of the youth who have embarked on a savage like rampage. Family members of the older generation recalled the 1981 uprising, and in no time a debate sprung as similarities were inevitably noted – some footage could quite easily have been lifted from the 80s – but most pertinent was the realisation that these riots appeared completely thoughtless in comparison.

In 1981 Brixton was infamously the scene of two nights of unrest, which kicked off as a result of a confrontation with police. And now, although this is speculative, the catalyst was the death of Mark Duggan, a twenty-nine-year-old Tottenham man who was shot by police during their attempt to arrest him on August 4th. This incident comes after a series of spats between the police and members of the public in recent years.

When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody, at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the courts are seen by many to be protecting the police rather than the people. The youth’s disparity with the police seems unaltered 30 years on; the difference now is that rioters have increased confidence as the police are significantly less secure in their authority. In the 1980s there was no IPCC to investigate alleged police brutality and corruption, now recent high profile cases against the police mean they fear scrutiny.

The riots also come early in the term of a Conservative Prime Minister. Since the coalition came to power just over a year ago, the country has seen multiple student protests, several strikes, a half-a-million-strong trade union march and now unrest on streets across the nation.

However, although the circumstances during Brixton 1981 and Tottenham 2011 paint similar pictures; economic crisis, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services and a deterioration in the view of the police – it seemed apparent that there was no clear grounds these young people were standing on, no signs of genuine deep rooted anger of a group that had a voice and wanted it to be heard. Instead it looked like a bunch of kids who decided that while the government was out and summer holidays in, they would steal, trash property and play with fire. This rioting did not appear political, just criminal.

It seems strange listening to commentators who claim the riots are an uprising against the evils of capitalism, while the targets have been JD Sports and the only “gains” made by the rioters have been to get a new pair of trainers or a laptop. In 1981, looting and the destruction of local properties were largely incidental to the broader expression of political anger within communities towards the state. But in these riots, looting and damage is all there is.

The most striking thing about the rioters is how little they care for their own communities. These riots suggest that political and social circumstances are giving rise to a generation that has no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.

The very real and legitimate concerns among the wider UK youth, that I have heard used as justification for this callous rioting, have been lost in the flames, smoke and vandalism. As we stand back and see cities around England descend into chaos the aim of the rioters is not clear at all, if they even set out with an aim in the first place.

So, as in the aftermath of all major crises, sure enough the blame game begins and people take their corners. Is it the government’s fault for making the young people of Britain feel their future is hopeless? Is it the fault of parents for allowing or even encouraging their young teenagers to riot? Is it the schools, the media, peer pressure? Or maybe it’s a combination of all these things. This may become apparent as the situation calms, but more important than assigning blame and threatening law enforcement are the lessons that are learnt and the message that is sent out during this crucial time. To believe that the threat of punishment alone will reach rioters is quite naive, seeing as their actions demonstrate they had no regard for the law to begin with.

While I do not condone the ill-advised actions of the youth that are heartlessly destroying the city I call home, and the nation I belong to, they surely have their reasons which need to be deciphered from among the burnt buildings, smashed glass and influx of speculation that surrounds these riots. We will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur.

I too have bones to pick with our government and our police force, but like the majority of young people across the UK I know that violence and disregard for other people’s lives and livelihoods will have the exact opposite effect that I desire for my future, my community and my country.

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